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This Twitter Post a Long Time in Coming

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2009

I’ve been collecting Twitter stories in my blog reader for several weeks.  There are gillions of them and they’re frankly clogging things up.  But I wanted to be able to go back, read them all in a sitting, and try to get some gestalt back about Twitter.  This is a long post because Twitter is a complex phenomenon, and can’t be understood in 140 character snippets.  Before we get any further, let me say that I use Twitter, and I like Twitter, but there is a lot more going on with Twitter than it seems, and that bears thinking about.

As is often the case, a lot of Twitter is about marketing and human behavior.  Deep-rooted behavior that creates strong forces that propel Twitter forward.  For a long time I have sensed those forces, but couldn’t quite put them into words. 

Probably my closest attempt was a feeling that largely what Twitter has done is to eliminate all the friction.  It is the most amazingly frictionless Social Media the world has yet seen.  Consider some of the many ways in which Twitter has eliminated friction:

-   It’s trivial to join, of course.  But having joined, there is an absolute minimum amount of effort required to “prepare your nest.”  MySpace requires quite a lot of effort.  Facebook took less, and one could argue that is a big advantage for Facebook.

-   There is no business model to get in the way.  There are no ads and no fees to keep up with.  There is spam, but so far it is easily ignored. 

-   You are left alone.  You can completely ignore Twitter, or participate completely sporadically.  You are not bombarded with messages asking you to do various things.  At best, you have messages telling you someone followed you, which are good news messages you can choose to ignore.  Once in a Blue Moon, you may get a direct message on Twitter, but you can ignore that pretty painlessly too. 

-  You don’t have to be William Shakespeare to contribute.   People alternately complain about the limitations of only being able to post 140 characters and the brilliance of forcing people to write poetry to get their point across.  It’s all very Zen.  Yet there is a simpler explanation.  If I am only writing 140 characters, how badly can I screw things up?  If I only have to get on stage and utter one line, I can get through it.  Moreover, it is socially acceptible on Twitter to write the most pedestrian of drivel.  You don’t have to be profound.  Just tell which fast food you ate for lunch.  Even if I can’t possibly write a blog post, I can do this.  I can Tweet!  Hence Fred Wilson calls it, “Blogging in less than a minute.”

-  You can make friends.  It’s easy.  Just go follow people.  Mostly they follow you back.  If you try even a little bit hard to accumulate followers, you can get quite a few.  Don’t know who to follow?  Simple, go find some popular person and just follow everyone they follow.  This works.  I’ve seen it many times.  Twitter will even suggest who to follow (a tactic some argue discourages a vibrant community).  There are endless other ways to game Twitter and get a zillion followers.   It’s much easier than SEO or the kinds of things you have to do to get a following for a blog.  It’s much easier than friending on Facebook.  Note:  I have studiously avoided these games to see what happens if you wait for the world to come to you and because I don’t value followers who follow me just because I followed them first.  I want followers who follow me because they like what I have to say or because I like what they have to say.

-  It meshes extremely well with the Mobile Web.  As a result, it has also become an awesome way to quietly pass notes in class, even at poker games.

-  For certain personality types, Twitter is positively addictive.  It is a cult to the extent that Twitter was recommended for Nobel Peace Price.  OK, I’m no Twitter hater, but come onthat’s just ridiculousTechcrunch is closer when they say the cycle for Twitter is curiousity followed either by abandonment or addiction.  The middle ground is missing there.

They got a lot right!  So where is the downside in all that?  

Extracting value.  There is friction around extracting value from Twitter.  It’s easy to start Twitter, but it is hard to continue because of the friction in extracting value.

Before we talk about that friction, we have to ask a fair question:  “Is there real value in Twitter?”

Once upon a time, there was a company that many in Silicon Valley were hot about.  It had top drawer VC’s, and it seemed that everywhere I went, I saw this software running on computers.  It was called PointCast, and it was dead sexy.  It had a technology hook called “Push Technology.”  It had that online webby connectedness.  It had an advertising model.  All this in 1997.  I had a chance to interview to be their VP Of Engineering, but I found the whole value proposition to be troubling.  You see, what PointCast did was to display advertising on a screensaver.  Fascinating to look at.  People love a cool screen saver.  And this one gave news and all sorts of other information interspersed with ads.  But what troubled me is that I could get all that from the Internet whenever I wanted it, and PointCast only delivered it up when I wasn’t using the computer, which triggered the screensaver.

Hello?  Ads served precisely whenever someone wasn’t using the computer?  Am I the only one who thought this was a bit silly?

Well, to make that long detour shorter, they got a $450M offer from Rupert Murdoch, which was a huge valuation at the time, they turned it down, and then the company essentially disappeared about a year later.  I guess there were others who thought it was a bit silly after all.

Is Twitter another PointCast?  Sexy at the moment, but in the end, offering no value, and hence doomed when the hype wears off?

Some feel that way, but I don’t think so.  I have personally gotten real value from Twitter despite that friction.  Twitter is an incredible newswire and real time search.  Remember the old teletypes constantly churning out news?  Remember the old paper ticker tapes for the stock market?  Twitter is all that and a lot more.  It is the fastest way to know a little bit (140 characters, remember!) about anything, and especially brand new things.  Any service that lets you find news you can’t get anywhere else is fundamentally valuable.

If I were at Twitter, I would be focused on increasing the value delivered and reducing the friction around getting that value.  As we crest the growth curve, all those people defecting are going to be problematic.  It will get increasingly expensive to bring enough new participants to offset that churn.  I’m still pondering exactly what I would do, so that will be the subject of other posts, but that would be my top priority.  Adoption friction is gone.  No need to focus further there.  It’s time to focus on reducing Value Extraction Friction.

What, then, is the “Value Extraction Friction” that Twitter faces?

-  People don’t know what Twitter is.  It’s blind men describing an elephant so far.  It is a Rohrshach.  Every writer has a different take.  Like the infamous Supreme Court quote about porn, we don’t know what Twitter is, but we’re sure if you experience it, you will recognize it, and like it.  That is a sure tip off to Value Friction.  There is no good elevator pitch for the value that everyone immediately groks and shares.   The whole microblogging thing doesn’t really tell the story of what Twitter is.  You might get me to try it by calling it “Blogging in less than a minute”, but it won’t take me long to decide, “No, not really.”

-  If you do the obvious thing and latch on to a ton of followers very easily, the signal to noise ratio on Twitter is lousy.  The more followers you have, and having a lot seems to be the thing, the less likely you are to read more than a small fraction of their Tweets.  Popular Twitterati with tens of thousands of follows are basically absentees.  When seeking followers, be careful what you wish for and clear about what you want to get out of Twitter.  OTOH, even celebrities with tons of followers sometimes hear amazing things about themselves first on Twitter.

-  You have to use search to cut through the noise.  Search invalidates the follower aspect of Twitter, though.  Plus search makes you think about what to search for.  It’s hard to search for news by defintion.  If you know what to search for, you already heard about it and want to learn more.

Twitter is lousy for conversations.  Admit it.  Without some external app, conversations on Twitter are disjointed and confusing.  There’s no way to stitch a conversation together manually.  The more followers you have, and the more the conversation involves people you don’t follow, the harder it gets.  Twitter is largely a “talk but don’t listen” medium.  Hmmm.  That is strikingly Old School when you think about it.

-  Despite some people feeling Twitter and its Retweets can be a big source of traffic for your blog or other properties, it is no silver bullet.  But it certainly helps.  Perhaps it is more a source of discovery than an ongoing source of traffic.  When it does drive traffic, Twitter traffic is certainly inconsistent.

-  Increasingly, thought leaders are saying though leaders shouldn’t spend their time on Twitter.  Twitter is where the unwashed go to discover what the thought leaders are saying.  It isn’t where thought leaders go to learn anything.  Just ask Robert Scoble or Jeremiah Owyang.  Or Nicholas Carr who says Twitter is turning the mighty into peasants.  

-  Twitter is wide open.  There is no privacy.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It reduces friction right up until you need to talk about something privately, and then it forces you to go elsewhere.  As Scoble puts it, he craves intimacy at times.  It causes some to actually discourage Tweeting, particularly in the PR space.

-  As the newness wears off, Twitter is increasingly going to be gamed by the spammers.  A huge part of Google’s value is they regularly win this arms race.  It isn’t clear that Twitter has even started to build any arms yet.

Twitter is largely about reaching and hearing the Social Media Geeks and Early Adopters.  It still hasn’t crossed the chasm.

Right now, Twitter is stuck in what Seth Godin calls the “Fan Chasm.”  As he puts it:

There are very few products, services or organizations that are simultaneously easily approachable and quite deep. That’s an opportunity for you if you can figure out how to be both, but choosing just one is a more likely scenario. So, which are you?

Twitter is easily approachable, and not at all deep.  That’s not the end of the world.  Twitter has gone far on this much.  But if they can figure out how to do both, or if their ecosystem figures it out for them, then they’ll be the dominant social medium on the web.

Related Twittiography

Some of the more interesting posts on Twitter that accumulated but were not linked above that can now be marked off:

Umair Haque on Twitter via Dion Hinchcliffe:  Haque is one of the Digerati, often challenging others with controversial insights.  I think his post largely points to the frictionlessness of Twitter as I have, but without identifying the problem of Value Extraction Friction.  As I have decried many times elsewhere, it is typically Western, requiring black and white judgements with his 10  <this great Twitter thing> beats <this conventional wisdom>.  He would’ve done better to identify the underlying friction theme and recognize nothing was beating anything.  Rather, it was being given away.

Om Malik on Twitter Hate:  There are no end of Twitter Hate stories.  The statistics on people joining and never using/leaving Twitter are horrendous.  This is simply a reflection of the high Value Friction.  If getting Value was easy for everyone, they would stay.  The low adoption friction means Om is right.  Twitter will bounce back and forth between Love (adoption) and Hate (value).

Brian Solis on Twitter being a broadcast, not a conversational platform.

Om Malik on how most Twitter users are strikingly silent.

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3 Responses to “This Twitter Post a Long Time in Coming”

  1. [...] This Twitter Post a Long Time in Coming « SmoothSpan Blog [...]

  2. geekmba360 said

    Love your story about pointcast — during my last semester at college, it was pretty much on every computer in the lab! :-)

    I was very skeptical about twitter initially as well. But, after using it for a few months, I think it’s very valuable tool with some limitations.

    I think twitter’s noise-to-substance ratio is very high — i.e. there are a lot of social networking butterflies using twitter. They follow a lot of people, and they get a lot of people following them. But, very little substantive discussion.

    However, I do find real values in twitter:
    1) I used it to get attention from influences. Because the message is so short, the busy/popular/high-powered folks might actually read it, which give you an opportunity to reach out to potential client/contacts.

    2) Unlike IM, it lets me to talk to stranger without fully disclosing who I’m. It protects privacy while allows you to communicate.

    3) Unlike facebook or other social networking sites, twitter let people to automatically follow you without your permission. For me, this has been a discovery tool — I find some interesting business contacts after they start following me.

    In other words, twitter gets people connect without getting too close. Its shortness is also conducive for the short attention span. :-)

    Bill (www.GeekMBA360.com)

  3. [...] Comments geekmba360 on This Twitter Post a Long Time …Microsoft Has Starte… on What Keeps Microsoft Office St…Microsoft Has Starte… [...]

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